Sara Hattis chooses thrill of the kill

By Walter Villa

When it comes to college, most elite athletes have one tough decision to make.

Sara Hattis had two.

Not only did the 6-foot-4 volleyball middle blocker and basketball post from Cleveland (Rio Rancho, N.M.) have to choose among the numerous schools that were offering her scholarships, but she also had to decide between volleyball and basketball.

Basketball was her first love – she started competing when she was 5 – and it was the sport her 6-8 father, Bill, played in college at the University of Arizona. Her star quickly rose, and she is the No. 78 player in the ESPNU HoopGurlz Top 100 for the 2012 class.

In contrast, Hattis got a late start in volleyball, playing competitively for the first time when she was 12. But because she has come so far so fast in volleyball, her upside in the sport is considered to be enormous.

“I love both sports,” Hattis said. “I have a passion for both.”

Hattis, though, said she wanted to focus on only one sport in college so she can reach her full potential.

In the end, she chose the thrill of the kill in volleyball over the dream of the dunk in basketball.

Once she settled on her sport, Hattis’ life-altering choices were only half-done.

She then needed to make a decision within a decision. Should see stay close to home and play for head coach Jeff Nelson and assistant Ben Wallis at New Mexico? Or should she venture out of state and choose from among 15 or so other choices?

Nelson had coached Hattis in club ball, and Wallis is her former high school coach at Cleveland. Both men had sold her on the notion of becoming a “hometown hero” at UNM, an idea Hattis admits “sparked an interest” in her.

“Coach Wallis taught me pretty much everything I know about volleyball,” Hattis said. “Coach Nelson tweaked my game. I still need a lot of tweaking.”

That tweaking, however, will come at Texas, the school Hattis ultimately selected. Bill Hattis said the Longhorns, who were the No. 1 seed in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, have promised Hattis will ultimately touch 10-7 through strength and conditioning. Right now she can touch 10-1, and can dunk a tennis ball but not a basketball.

Hattis has left open the possibility of playing basketball her senior year, after her volleyball eligibility has been exhausted.

“It depends on how I feel at that time,” Hattis said. “But for now, it would have been too heavy a load.”

Long before that decision has to be made, though, comes a big task for Hattis next week. Cleveland will travel to Chandler, Ariz., to compete in the prestigious Nike Tournament of Champions. With its star in the middle, Cleveland is one of the favorites to win the Gray Division title. Hattis and the Storm open play on Monday against Livermore (Calif.).

Hattis, perhaps the most heavily recruited female athlete in New Mexico history, said her recruiting process was difficult, which helps explain why she didn’t choose Texas until Nov. 11, two days after the early signing period had begun.

In fact, Hattis was still wide open the summer before her senior year. She, her father and her younger brother, Henry, took a weeklong car trip last summer, stopping at numerous colleges, including Texas, Louisville, Purdue, DePaul, Northwestern and Vanderbilt.

To track all her scholarship offers – including her first, from SMU, before her freshman year -- her father gave her the idea of putting school logos on a map.

But information-gathering was as far as Bill Hattis would go. He wanted whatever choice his daughter made to be hers alone.

“I tried to stay as neutral as I could,” he said. “It was extremely hard. There were times when I had to bite my lip. There were times when she would tell me, ‘Dad, just tell me what I should do.’ ”

Ironically, Bill Hattis had also been a two-sport star. A right-handed relief pitcher who could throw sidearm to intimidate righty hitters, he was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 18th round of the 1971 draft.

Had he signed, he would have played rookie ball in Utah under Tommy Lasorda. But he chose college instead and tried playing baseball and basketball at Arizona, with little success. After a couple years, he transferred to the University of Miami and made it to the championship game of the 1974 College World Series.

But he was never drafted again and did not make a post-college tryout with the Baltimore Orioles.

Perhaps Bill Hattis’ attempt at juggling basketball and baseball influenced Sara to pick one sport.

Vicky McCarty, who coached Hattis in volleyball this past season, said her star player appears content.

“Before she decided, she was really stressed,” McCarty said. “You could see it in her face.”

There’s no stress now for Hattis, who is playing a care-free final season of basketball. The only thing missing from her resume is a state title. She made it the Class 5A volleyball state final two years in a row, losing to Gadsden (Anthony, N.M.) both times.

The 2011 state final was particularly painful. Cleveland was up 9-3 in the fifth set but lost 16-14.

For the season, Hattis had 289 kills and an impressive .485 hitting percentage.

“It’s tough to say which sport she has more potential in, basketball or volleyball,” Bill Hattis said. “I think she could have become a terrific basketball player, and it’s a sport I know well.

“I don’t know a lot about volleyball. But (experts in the game) say she has just scratched the surface of her potential, and that’s pretty exciting.”